However – meanings and punctuation

The word however is overused in business writing and the punctuation that goes with it is often incorrect.

Different meanings of however
Part of the confusion occurs because of the different meanings of however. A couple of common meanings are ‘in spite of’ and ‘in whatever way’.

She did, however, manage to pass her exam.

However in this sentence means ‘in spite of something previously mentioned’ and is separated by commas because it provides extra information that could be deleted and the sentence would still make sense. (She did manage to pass the exam.)

I will help however I can.

However in this sentence means ‘in whatever way’ and because the word is essential to the meaning of the sentence, you don’t need commas.

These usages are straightforward and don’t usually cause any problems. It is when we use however to mean ‘yet’, ‘but’ or ‘nevertheless’ that problems arise.

First issue
A traditional rule was that however should not be used at the beginning of a sentence when it means ‘nevertheless’, ‘but’ or yet’. There is no reason why not and it is commonly used.

However, some writers would prefer to not start a sentence with however for risk of offending.

If you do start a sentence like the one above with however, use a comma after it to distinguish it from the other meanings of however.

Second issue
When we join two clauses in a sentence with however meaning ‘nevertheless’, ‘but’ or ‘yet’, the rules state it should be preceded by a semicolon and followed by a comma. The grammatical reason is that however is an adverbial conjunct (also called a connective or conjunctive adverb), not a conjunction. Other words in this category include moreover, therefore and furthermore.

The risks are grave; however, we have an action plan for mitigating them.

I know that is the correct punctuation, but wonder if this is yet another area of punctuation that is in the process of change. I am increasingly seeing such sentences punctuated with a single comma.

The risks are grave, however we have an action plan for mitigating them.

I will stick to using semicolons, but will continue to watch what is happening in the workplace.

Third issue
Overuse! Some writers seem to think that their writing is not cohesive or formal enough unless they liberally scatter however throughout. Therefore and thus are also sometimes culprits, but however is the worst offender.

However, particularly at the beginning of a sentence can often be deleted without any loss of meaning, and when used in the middle of the sentence can often be replaced with a simpler word, such as but or yet.

The risks are grave, but we have an action plan for mitigating them.

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